Isaiah the Prophet, Man or Biblical Myth: The Archaeological Evidence

Finding seal marks ostensibly from Isaiah the Prophet and Hezekiah within mere feet of each other in Jerusalem is intriguing; so are other seals of other non-visionary Isaiahs found in Israel from that time

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Complete seal bearing the name 'Achiav ben Menachem' found at the City of David's Beit Shalem excavation.
Complete seal bearing the name 'Achiav ben Menachem' found at the City of David's Beit Shalem excavation: Seals with a name followed by a patronymic were quite the norm 3,000 years ago, it seems.Credit: Courtesy of the City of David Archives, photo by Eliyahu Yanai
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom

A 2,700-year-old seal impression on clay unearthed in Jerusalem this February piqued enormous interest, after its finder, the leading Jerusalem archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar, said it may have been the personal seal of Isaiah the Prophet himself. Biblical scholars have been quarreling ever since.

The seal of Prophet Isaiah? It definitely says the name Isaiah, and has the first three of the four letters in the Hebrew word for Prophet (NVY, with the final aleph not there)Credit: Ouria Tadmor / Eilat Mazar

The ancient Hebrew script, engraved with a sharp point, says Yeshayahu NBY, Mazar deciphered.

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Yeshayahu is the Hebrew form of Isaiah: that much is clear. The question is about the three letters following the name: nun-bet-yod, "NBY".

King Hezekiah of Judah's seal. Note the pagan element of the winged sun and the ankh: The symbols may show that the seal was created late in the king's life and shows Assyrian influenceCredit: Ouria Tadmor / Courtesy of Dr. Eilat Mazar

That could spell the start of the four-letter Hebrew word navi, meaning "prophet," if we assume that there was a fourth letter, aleph, which broke off. Mazar thinks that could well be the case, and that they may have found proof that Isaiah the Prophet, contemporary King Hezekiah, really existed. But as with so many artifacts from antiquity, the truth is far from categorical.

Finding Isaiah

In antiquity, seals were used as signatures to mark ownership, authenticity, or agreement. The name of the person would often be followed by the name of the person’s father, ancestral location, or profession. Finding a personal name alone was the exception.

Unfortunately, the clay bulla (seal impression) that Mazar found was damaged. The second word is broken off after three letters, NBY (or NVY: the letters B and V are the same in Hebrew).

To be the word "prophet," the missing fourth letter would have to be an aleph. But who knows if it was? That is just one reason many take issue with interpreting NBY as "prophet," Nadav Na'aman, professor of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University, tells Haaretz.

Alan Millard, professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages at Liverpool University, is also skeptical, for another reason. The word “prophet” would not have followed the personal name without the definite article "the" (ha in Hebrew), Millard argues. So, if it belonged to the prophet, the bulla should have read "Yeshayahu HaNavi" - i.e. HNBY.

“There are other Hebrew seals or impressions which have a profession after the owners’ names and they all have the definite article (HSPR, meaning “the scribe”, for instance)," Millard points out.

Mazar herself agrees that rather than designating occupation, the "NBY" could have been part or all of a personal name. Unless we find more impressions of this seal, we will never know.

Isaiah the son

For his part, Na'aman suggests that the second word, NBY, could be a Middle East patronymic. In other words, he postulates that the impression originally read "Isaiah (son of) NBY" – for instance, possibly "Isaiah son of Nebai" – another name from biblical sources.

Dr. Eilat Mazar, displaying the seal of King HezekiahCredit: Emil salman

If Naaman is right, the Hebrew word for "son of," ben (BN), is missing. Millard disagrees, feeling that the seal would have plenty of space to add the letters "BN" for "son of".

What can be said is that the name "Nebai" existed in biblical times and meant "from the city of Nob", which was a priestly town not far from Jerusalem, though we aren't sure today where exactly it was.

The Book of Nehemiah describes how the children of Israel confessed their sins to the Lord, praised him, enumerated his achievements (for instance, "You came down on Mount Sinai; you spoke to them from heaven. You gave them regulations and laws" – Nehemiah 9:13). The Israelites then entered into a covenant with the Lord that was written out and sealed by the princes, Levites and priests. Among the many, many names mentioned as having signatory rights on that occasion was one "Nebai," listed among the leaders of the people (Nehemiah 10:19).

By the way, if this Isaiah really was the son of this Nebai, then he wasn’t the prophet, if only on the grounds that the prophet said his father was named Amoz.

Incredibly, archaeologists have found four sets of seal impressions featuring the name Nebai, but three are non-provenanced – meaning, the researchers can't be sure where they originated.

The fourth was unearthed in Lachish, and the impression gained is that Nebai is indeed a personal name. (The four seal impressions are described in "Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals," originally written by Nahman Avigad and revised by Benjamin Sass: Nos. 227, 379, 530 and 693, and see p. 513.)

Lastly, this wasn't the first time that archaeologists found the name "Isaiah" outside the context of the Bible in a contemporary inscription. The Avigad-Sass "Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals" lists three seals (Nos. 212, 213, and 214) belonging to men named Isaiah, complete with patronymics: the three had different fathers, none of whom was Amoz.

What can be said that the Hebrew script on Mazar's seal impression is typical of the 8th century B.C.E., the period Isaiah was supposed to have lived.

With the last word not said, who then was Isaiah the Prophet, anyway?

Who was Isaiah?

Millard for one sees no reason to doubt that Isaiah was a real person who lived in the reigns of Sargon II, then Sennacherib – that being the Assyrian king who marched through Judah, conquering 46 of King Hezekiah's fortified cities, but who mysteriously withdrew after reaching Jerusalem just as victory over the cowed Judahite king seemed assured.

Assyrian soldiers in battle: They swept over the land of Israel, vanquishing 46 of Hezekiah's cities - but suddenly, dolded the siege of Jerusalem and leftCredit: Getty Images IL

Millard's indicator lies in how Sargon's name is spelled in the Book of Isaiah.

Isaiah was a contemporary of Sargon II, who ruled from 722 to 705 B.C.E. (Isaiah 20:1-2), the prophet himself says in the biblical narrative.

In Isaiah 20:1, the Assyrian king's name is spelled SRGN, which is the Aramaic version. The Assyrians spoke Aramaic (a language very like Hebrew, originally spoken by the Aramaeans that would eventually become the international language for trade in Assyria and Babylon too).

The oldest-known testimony to the Jewish Exile in Babylon in 587 B.C.E., naming names. Credit: Ardon Bar Hama, Cindy and David Sofer Collection

We know the Assyrians spelled Sargon the same way, SRGN, from an Aramaic seal imprint found at Khorsabad, the site of the king's new palace near Nineveh, Millard explains.

If the Book of Isaiah was a later artifact, written or revised during the Jews' Babylonian exile, Sargon would presumably have been written the Babylonian way – "SHRKN."

Scourge of kings

In the first verse of his book, Isaiah introduces himself as “Isaiah son of Amoz” and tells us that he served as a prophet “during the reigns of Uzziah Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (Isaiah 1:1).

The seal found at Omrit, which apparently dates to the time of Sargon II, an Assyrian king who ruled between 722 and 705 BCE.Credit: Tel-Hai College

If so, this means that Isaiah was active no less than 46 years, probably beginning his career at the end of Uzziah's reign around 743 B.C.E.

According to the Bible, this was a period of international tension and inner turmoil. Political unrest was rife, bribery tainted the courts, and hypocrisy was tearing the religious fabric of society. Even some Judahite kings persisted with pagan worship, not caviling at human sacrifice:

"Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem sixteen years. Unlike David his father, he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord. He followed the ways of the kings of Israel and also made idols for worshiping the Baals. He burned sacrifices in the Valley of Ben Hinnom and sacrificed his children in the fire" (2 Chronicles 28:1-3; and the list of Ahaz's sins goes on. Judah is punished for Ahaz's sins.)

There are other elaborations of pagan worship by the Judahic kings in 2 Kings 16:5-8 and Isaiah 7:1-12, for example.

Isaiah, who seemed to have been quite outspoken even to kings, did not spare them his rhetoric, calling the rulers of Judah “dictators of Sodom” (Isaiah 1:10).

Ancient figurines believed to represent devotion to gods other than YHWH in ancient Israel.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

Secular records and archaeological finds in Judah and Jerusalem support Isaiah’s account of the religious and political affairs in Judah at the time, by and large.

Archaeologists have found hundreds of terracotta pagan figurines in Jerusalem and Judah, mainly in the ruins of private homes. Most were nude females with exaggerated breasts, which some scholars identify with fertility goddesses such as Asherah - talismans aiding in conception and childbirth. (Others argue that they bear no signs of divinity.)

At some "high places," so-called bamah, a sort of open-air altar dedicated to sacrifices to Yahweh, archaeologist have found inscriptions saying, “I bless you by Yahweh of Samaria and by his Asherah,” and another says, “I bless you by Yahweh of Teman and by his Asherah!” Namely, YHWH, God of the Jews.

No toady Isaiah

Although Isaiah may not have been popular with all of the kings of Judah, he seemed to have got along with some, not that he was necessarily a bearer of cheer. When King Hezekiah fell gravely ill, Isaiah came to him and told him he was going to die (Isaiah 38:1).

King Hezekiah, who ruled from around 727 to 686/7 B.C.E., was one of the more important kings of Judah, and he seems to have tolerated the influence of the opinionated prophet. Nothing less than the king's own seal imprint seems to have been found in 2009, during Mazar's excavations in Jerusalem. In fact the recent “Isaiah seal" was found just a few feet from the Hezekiah seal mark.

City of David: The seals ostensibly of King Hezekiah and Prophet Isaiah were found within 10 feet of one another.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

(Several examples of bullae imprinted by seals bearing Hezekiah’s name appeared on the antiquities market before Mazar found the one in situ in Jerusalem. There was more than one seal inscribed ‘Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, king of Judah’: the seals were probably delegated to high officials. We know Assyrian kings’ seals were so used.)

The discovery of the "Isaiah seal" so nearby the king's does not prove the theory that the "Isaiah seal" was the seal impression of Isaiah the Prophet himself, who was an adviser to the king, as Mazar herself observes. But it is intriguing.

Portrait de Lord George Byron (1778-1824)Credit: Whiteimages / leemage / AFP

During Hezekiah's reign, the kingdom was invaded by King Sennacherib of Assyria, an event described in detail (Isaiah 36-37) and corroborated by the extra-biblical account inscribed in the Annals of Sennacherib Prism, the Rassam Cylinder and also Histories, written by the 5th century B.C.E. Greek Herodotus. Sennacherib's siege of Jerusalem was so dramatic that it was still inspiring writers eons later, including Dante and Lord Byron:

The Assyrians came down like the wolf on the fold, and his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold; And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea, when the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee" – Lord Byron

Isaiah the scribe?

Not only did Isaiah seem to have been close to the kings of Judah, having access to Ahaz and Hezekiah: he also seemed to have had training in scribal skills.

Isaiah was evidently familiar with the way scribes worked in 8th -century B.C.E. Judah, such as using wax-covered wooden tablets as instant notebooks, and only later copying the text onto papyrus or leather (which may have been more common, as papyrus had to be imported from Egypt): "Now come, write it upon a tablet with them, and inscribe it even in a book..." (Isaiah 30:8).

Assyrian godCredit: Getty Images IL

“Isaiah was a member of the upper class in Judah and could well have been able to write and read,” says Millard. In fact he is convinced that writing was widespread in Israel and Judah in the 8th and 7th centuries B.C.E. The sheer number of sites with texts, the quantity of short texts and the multitude of seals and impressions bearing their owners' names should dispel any notion that writing was rare, Millard argues.

Writing on pottery unearthed in a fort in Arad, Israel from about 600 B.C.E., shortly before Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of JerusalemCredit: Dan Balilty / AP

It bears adding that a lot of historians and archaeologists do not agree that reading and writing were commonplace 3,000 years ago, but many do. If the Judahite scribes were doing menial legal and administrative duties such as making lists, setting out legal deals and writing letters – Millard for one thinks it reasonable to expect some to have spent time writing other texts, as was done in Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Hebrew compositions found on ancient ostraca (pottery fragments) and walls (they had graffiti then too) prove that somebody at least was writing things other than laundry lists and praise to the king. One ostracon found in the Israeli desert outpost of Arad bears part of a literary text. Another from the fort at Horvat Uzza is of literary nature, possibly a sapient work by a local author.

Elsewhere, at Kuntillet Ajrud in the Sinai, lines of a prophetic verse written on wall plaster have been dated to the early 8th century B.C.E.

Isaiah may not have been a professional scribe per se, but some scholars assume that he was well versed, not only delivering his prophecies orally but writing them down. Na'aman however begs to note that there are no other examples of prophets who delivered their prophecy in a written form.

Drawing from Kuntillet Ajrud, an Israelite outpost in Southern Negev, 8th century B.C.E. Credit: Alamy

“Jeremiah is the only prophet in the days of the Kings who is recorded as having his prophecies written down,” Millard adds.

Revelation: Predicting the Messiah

Whether Isaiah is fact or figment is a matter of interest to both Jews and Christians, since among other things Isaiah foretold a number of details about the coming of the Messiah.

It is a paragraph by Isaiah that has become one of the most controversial passages in the Old Testament. As the King James Version translates Isaiah 7:14: "Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son."

More modern translations take issue with the translation of the Hebrew word alma as "virgin," arguing that it merely means "young woman".

Isaiah also foretold that the Messiah would be a descendent of David (Isaiah 11:1-5). He predicted that the Messiah would not be accepted by the majority of Israel and instead be a “stone of stumbling” to them (Isaiah 8:14,15).

In the book of Isaiah, the Messiah prophetically says: “My back I gave to the strikersmy face did not conceal from humiliating things and spit” (Isaiah 50:6). He even gave details of the Messiah's death, foretelling: “He will make his burial place even with the wicked ones, and with the rich class in death” (Isaiah 53:9).

Finally Isaiah spoke of the meaning of the Messiah's death:

The righteous one, my servant, will bring a righteous standing to many people; and their errors he himself will bear” (Isaiah 53:8,11).

Many Christians today identify the Messiah with Jesus Christ, and view Isaiah's prophecies regarding the Messiah as fulfilled by the works and life of Jesus Christ.

Victory by rodent

For Jews, Isaiahic prophecies of Exile and Restoration attest to his divine inspiration. He foretold that Assyria would not dethrone the kings of Judah and destroy Jerusalem – but Babylon would.

When Assyria "flooded" Judah "up to the neck", Isaiah gave King Hezekiah the comforting message that the Assyrian forces wouldn't take Jerusalem (Isaiah 8:7,8).

Ultimately, the prophet was right. Assyrian accounts describe how Sennacherib surrounded, besieged and conquered 46 of Hezekiah's fortified walled cities, and seized 200,150 people and all kinds of domestic animals as spoils of war. Sennacherib mockingly describes how he trapped Hezekiah:

“Himself [Hezekiah] I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage”.

The Assyrian leader imposed a heavy tribute of 30 talents of gold, 800 talents of silver and all kind of luxury items – as well as the king's daughters, palace women and singers. The annals tell how Hezekiah dispatched messengers to deliver the tribute.

But just as victory seemed to be at hand, Sennacherib suddenly lifted the siege and did not depose Hezekiah from the Judahite throne.

Even the ancients puzzled over why the Assyrians did not capture Jerusalem despite his reputation for mercilessness.

Could Assyrian ambitions have been tamed by the mouse? The Greek historian Herodotus tells us, based on tales told him by Egyptian priests:

During the night a horde of field mice gnawed quivers and their bows and the handles of shields, with the result that many [Assyrian soldiers] were killed, fleeing unarmed the next day” – Herodotus 2.141.

Mice were a symbol of pestilence in the ancient world, and may have been employed here allegorically. But Herodotus' story is that mouse attack devastated the Assyrians outside Jerusalem and the rest is, well, perhaps history.

Or, perhaps the Assyrian forces were decimated by a pestilence carried by rodent. Or something else.

Ultimately, however, Jerusalem was captured by the Persian king Cyrus in 587 B.C.E. – an event also predicted by the prophet (Isaiah 45:1,2).

How many Isaiahs were there?

The issue of prophecy is one thing that has caused many scholars to question the authorship of the Book of Isaiah.

A fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls at an Israel Antiquities Authority conservation laboratory in Jerusalem, October 19, 2010.Credit: AP

In the 12th century, the Jewish commentator Abraham ibn Ezra suggested that the second half of the book, from Chapter 40, was written by somebody else who lived during the post-Isaiah period of the Babylonian exile.

Today many scholars believe that as many as three Deutero-Isaiahs may have contributed later than the 6th century B.C.E., during or after the exile. That would explain the "prophecies" of Judah's desolation.

It bears adding that in the Isaiah manuscript among the roughly 2,200-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls, Chapter 40 begins on the last line of a column and ends in the next column. There is no sign of change in writer or division in the book at that point.

Then there is the testimony of first-century Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus, who not only indicates that the prophecies in Isaiah pertaining to Cyrus were written in the 8th century B.C.E. – but also says that Cyrus was aware of these prophecies.

“These things Cyrus knew,” Josephus writes, “from reading the book of prophecy which Isaiah had left behind two hundred and ten years earlier.”

According to Josephus, knowledge of these prophecies may even have contributed to Cyrus’ willingness to send the Jews back to their homeland. As Josephus writes: Cyrus was “seized by a strong desire and ambition to do what had been written.” (Jewish Antiquities, Book XI, chapter 1, paragraph 2).

“I have no difficulty in positing a single author for the Book of Isaiah on grounds of faith. If we allow that books might be revised, then that could account for the otherwise awkward appearance of the name Cyrus,” Millard explains.

Was Isaiah a historic figure with prophetic powers? The authors of the Gospels thought so, crediting Isaiah with writing the book, and so did Josephus, and Shimon ben Yeshua ben Eliezer ben Sira, the Jerusalemite sage who wrote in the 2nd century B.C.E.

These writers may not have been contemporary, but they weren't 850 years in delay, basing their assumptions on medieval manuscripts from the 12th century C.E., as some modern biblical scholars today tend to do.

Did the clay bulla found in Jerusalem belong to Isaiah the prophet of the 8th century B.C.E.? As he himself exclaimed in his book, “Here I am, Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8). Who knows, maybe that did happen, and we will find solid evidence of his existence one day.


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